Feature: Wednesday, March 20, 2003
CareFright Part 2

Walton said that the move by Majors to outsource his pilots and mechanics was also aimed at getting rid of a minor competitor, LifeStar, an air-ambulance service wholly owned by OmniFlite that was then flying out of Frisco. The deal included OmniFlite’ s promise to take LifeStar out of the North Texas market, even though both pilots say it was never a serious competitor. In the end, only OmniFlite seemed to come out ahead, Schmidtke said. “Majors gave the company a lucrative 10-year contract [for maintenance and pilots],” he said, “a deal unheard of in this business.” Most contracts for outsourcing services are no longer than five years, he said. “And then, he couldn’t provide the pilots.”

The close call was a signal, Schmidtke said, “that this is an ‘at will’ state, and we needed to organize to save our jobs in the future.” In September 2001, the pilots voted unanimously to be represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Schmidtke became their shop steward. The pilots soon found themselves facing another hazard, however: the storms of Agusta.

On Dec. 18, 2001, AgustaWestland Company of Italy announced on an industry web page that it had signed a contract with CareFlite for eight Agusta 109 Power E twin turbine helicopters.

In the release, Majors said the company was upgrading and standardizing its fleet by going to all twin-turbine helicopters. Another company official said, “The speed of the Power facilitates an expeditious response to our medical emergencies when seconds are critical ... and the Power best meets our load and range requirements.”

Majors said that the company was indulging in some puffing. “We only committed to five,” he said. Four have been delivered.

What the release didn’t include was the Agustas’ safety record for that year.

On October 9, 2001, an Agusta 109 crashed in Italy, killing all five people aboard; in early December, mechanical problems brought down an Agusta in Wales, with no one injured. And the FAA listed two Agusta non-injury crashes that year in the United States.

The craft’s problems have continued since CareFlite made its purchases. In 2002, an Agusta 109 crashed in Greece, killing five people, including a 62-year-old heart patient. And three Agustas were involved in non-fatal crashes in this country, including the incident in Fort Worth.

In December of 2002, the FAA issued its airworthiness directive, warning owners and operators of the Agusta 109’s about serious tail rotor problems that could cause “loss of control of the aircraft.” The next month, an Agusta crashed near Salt Lake City, killing the pilot and paramedic and seriously injuring the flight nurse.

Even without those safety concerns, Schmidtke, who calls the sleek helicopter a “Flying Ferrari,” said the Agusta is too delicate and maintenance-intensive to do the rough work of medical emergencies. Because required medical equipment would put the Agusta, fully fueled, over the maximum safe flying weight, the Italian helicopters must sacrifice fuel — and therefore distance and air-time — in order to fly emergency missions

That means the Agusta’s range is severely limited, the pilots said. In fact, the Italian copter must refuel just to make a round trip from base to many of the outlying hospitals it serves, taking away any advantage it may have had in speed over the Bell models. So, on top of the other calculations an Agusta pilot must make in the few minutes he has before taking off on an emergency call, he must also determine where he can refuel, if he’s going very far. Refueling stops can eat up 15 or more minutes, the pilot said, even if there’s an airport close to the victim. “It could mean the life or death of a burned child,” the pilot said.

“If medical crews aren’t able to get to their patients in time to save them, they’re not going to fly with CareFlite,” Schmidtke said. And that, he and the other workers interviewed by Fort Worth Weekly believe, is the reason CareFlite lost two of its biggest — and best-paying — customers.

In late 2002, not long after CareFlite started using the Agustas, Children’s Medical Center of Dallas and Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth quit using CareFlite, which had done their emergency transports since 1989.

Spokespersons for the two hospitals confirmed that they were no longer using CareFlite but declined to give a reason.

Schmidtke and Walton said that if Majors had listened to his pilots’ representative on the committee he set up to compare the Agustas to the Bell 430 — the other helicopter under consideration — they would be flying the Bell today. It’s a rugged craft and a dream to fly, the pilots say. And it has the range to go wherever it’s needed in the CareFlite service area without refueling, both said. “It could do every mission CareFlite expected it to do,” Walton said.

Bell offered to sell the company five at $4 million each; Agusta was offering eight at $3.8 million. The pilots wanted the new Bells, plus upgrades for the 222’s, which would have been cheaper.

But when the decision was made to buy the Agustas, the two pilots said, it was made behind closed doors by Majors and a select few. The pilot representative, Pat Hughes, was not invited to the final meeting.

Today, the two Bell 407’s are gone, trade-ins on the Agusta sale; the two Bell 206L3’s are sold; the German craft is still being flown out of the Tyler hospital; and three of the 222’s, including the one that was refurbished, are being used for backup. Four Agustas are in service.

“I was embarrassed, I gotta tell ’ya, the first time I had to fly that new baby,” Schmidtke said. Shortly after the first of the year, he said, he was about to fly a patient from Decatur to a Dallas hospital. He’d left the Denton base, where he was stationed, a “little nervous, a little apprehensive,” about the new Agusta 109 because of its questionable safety record and the short training time he’d had on it, but now he was safely on the ground in Decatur in this brand-new “be-all, do-all” aircraft that CareFlite officials said was going to revolutionize their work. Majors had touted the new choppers as “state-of-the-art, speedy, and reliable.”

That day, everyone at the small Decatur hospital was watching. “We got the patient loaded, and I said, ‘I’ll start this baby up and wow ’em.’” But when he tried to start it, nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. The engines wouldn’t start.

“We had to send the patient back inside, call in another helicopter for the patient and a mechanic to see what was wrong with the damn thing.” A glitch in the safety system from improper wiring had shut everything down. But that maintenance problem was just one of many, Schmidtke said. “These planes are maintenance hogs.”

Mechanics have found a litany of problems in the Agustas: leaking hydraulic fuels, nose landing gear troubles, tail rotor problems, defective autopilots, defective power steering, no heat. “It seemed to us that there were a hell of a lot of problems for brand new helicopters,” he said.

And then there was the training, which Schmidtke said was “disjointed and rushed.” The pilots had three weeks of ground school in August, he said, but didn’t get their hands-on flight training until months later. And that training was restricted to only five and one-half hours, per Majors’ orders, before the pilots were required to begin flying the new helicopters on emergency missions.

The pilots said they knew it was only a matter of time before there was an accident. Philip O’Rear happened to draw the short straw.

O’Rear declined to talk to the Weekly about the incident, deferring questions to his attorney Jim Lane, who represented him recently before an FAA board looking into the accident at Harris. “This whole thing is about training. It’s simply not adequate,” Lane said

“When you’ve got a pilot with 10,000 hours without a blip on his record, telling some FAA pilots, whose hours don’t even come close and who have never flown an Agusta, that the training needed to put these planes in the air does not meet any standards for safety, who can argue with him?

“I call these guys [emergency medical pilots] the ‘hurry-up pilots,’ and they have the same skills as neurosurgeons. They know what they’re doing, even in the worst of circumstances. O’Rear’s skill in putting that plane down safely is just amazing. He put a 40-foot helicopter down on a 20-foot spot on a parking garage and everyone walked away. He should have been treated like a hero.”

The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report, posted on its web site, described the damage to the helicopter and said only that when O’Rear began his rolling take-off, he quickly realized that the throttle was in the idle position, a condition that one pilot likened to trying to drive a car uphill without using the accelerator.

Chief investigator Aaron Sauers of Arlington said that his investigation has so far found no structural or mechanical failure in the aircraft. The final report on the accident is almost finished, he said. “We don’t find probable cause or lay blame. I simply present the facts as I find them.”

Sitting in the conference room at the CareFlite hanger at the Grand Prairie airport, Ed Majors is relaxed and talkative. He is in his late 50s, has gray hair clipped close, a gray mustache and piercing brown eyes. He declined to be photographed.

“This story is about helicopters, not me,” he said. Still the storms swirling around the Agustas have sucked him in for obvious reasons. He’s the man who is paid $149,000 a year to make such decisions. And he has no regrets, he said.

“These are the best for our needs, both for safety and economics.” The accidents concern him, he said, but he doesn’t think any of them point to any inherent problems with the planes. “We have highly qualified pilots,” he said, “and we consistently come in as one of the top three companies in this industry for safety.”

Last year CareFlite won an industry-wide award for having flown 50,000 missions without an accident. The only fatal accident in the company’s history was in 1981, he said, when a helicopter crashed, killing the pilot, while on a training flight.

“I am very optimistic about our future,” he said. “This is a wonderful company, a community treasure.”

Now, he said, his job is to keep the company running in the black without the considerable resources of the five hospitals. He will have to cut costs, he said, but not at the expense of safety.

His most formidable job ahead, however, may be to convince some of his skeptical employees and at least two major hospitals that he is capable of doing just that.

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